Will Flanders, Research Director
Recently, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) approved Wisconsin’s plan for more than $1.5 billion in federal funds under the COVID-relief package ESSER 3, with one crucial exception: $77 million that was to go to schools that offered more in-person instruction. This provision, put into place by the Wisconsin legislature, earmarked a small percentage of the funds to incentivize schools to reopen their doors: if they offered more hours of in-person instruction, they would have access to more funding. Saying that this provision would explicitly take funds away from students that missed more time in school, the ED demanded changes to this portion of the plan.
Perhaps the ED would have a point if schools kept their doors closed in a well-reasoned effort to keep kids safe. However, there was strong evidence as early as the summer of 2020 that reopening schools was quite safe. Our research in Wisconsin found that COVID-19 rates in a particular community had nothing to do with whether schools reopened their doors. Instead, the presence of a teachers’ union in the community was a decisive factor. This was supported by similar studies at the national level determining union strength mattered far more than the spread of the virus in reopening decisions.
The decision to remain closed is likely to have long term consequences for the nation. Standardized test scores fell dramatically this year, even after accounting for the huge number of students who didn’t participate in testing. In the Spring, WILL estimated an economic cost to the state of more than $7 billion over the lifetime of kids in school today as a result of lost learning.
Apparently, the ED recognizes that a loss of in-person instruction is a problem. By their very language denying Wisconsin the ability to use the funding in this manner, they admit that keeping students out of classrooms will mean that they need extensive ‘catching up.’ Yet they’ve created a catch-22 situation in which states are unable to incentivize reopening in order to provide funds to schools that failed to do so.
If this option is indeed completely off the table, the legislature should consider some alternative, creative means for these funds. While these funds must be directed to school districts, the state (and districts) could still be creative with how to use these additional funds. Dr. Marguerite Roza, an education funding expert, recently highlighted some possibilities. Among them, paying students to take summer courses to help overcome growing achievement gaps, or providing funds directly to families struggling to purchase school supplies at a time of economic upheaval. Another possibility might be mandating that districts create a supplemental Education Savings Account (ESA) to fund educational opportunities for students that aren’t currently offered in the district.
One would hope that school closures in response to COVID-19 will soon be a thing of the past. But as new variants continue to pop up, and some school districts have continued to shut down at least for short periods of time, it appears that we may continue to wrestle with these issues for the foreseeable future. By making it impossible for states to reward districts for keeping their doors open, the ED is helping to further stunt the progress of a generation that has already faced unprecedented interruptions of their education.